Wednesday, January 19, 2011

You have 6,894,400,000 nasty, poor, brutish and short friends

At the Florida Statewide Student Debate Conference back in 1972, I advanced the position that overpopulation would eventually make freedom and democracy unworkable. The “behavioral sink” phenomenon – basically, too many hostile people crammed together fighting for limited resources and dominance -- would blow the whole thing apart. Totalitarian governments, on the other hand, would maintain social order. Darwinian selection would favor Totalitarian governments. Red China, for example. If we didn’t want the American experiment to be history, we should make birth control available and affordable.

I backed this up with citations from several studies (stolen from Earth Day handouts), a quote from a Tom Wolfe essay and a few literary references.(King Rat, Make Room, Make Room, The World Inside)

My opponent (sporting a fetching mini-skirt and a bright gold cross in her ample cleavage) advanced the position that abortion kills babies and burst into tears. She won the debate.

Well, for whatever reason, our birthrate did go down – though the influx of immigrants probably made up for it.

Harry Harrison (in Make Room, Make Room) predicted a US population of 344 million citizens in 1999. According to Wikipedia, the current estimate for 2011 is 311,915,000 people – citizens or not. Harrison wasn’t that far off.

The “behavioral sink” I (and the authors I stole from) predicted didn’t happen. Yeah, people talk a lot of trash and go on the occasional shooting spree. But it ain’t King Rat yet.

The nightmare predictions always hit you with mob scenes. In 21st century America, there are very few places where lots of random people randomly bump up against each other; in fact, there’s very little real public space at all. (Like somebody once said, America can never have a revolution – there’s no public square to march to.)

We live in bubbles – drive around in SUVs and cars playing CDs, we surf the Internet, watch TV. We’ve got Facebook – an odd sort of surrogate, virtual community where you can talk to all your friends and join the crowd in total isolation. There’s very little unmediated social interaction where riots can start.

(Just an observation. I am, bear in mind, a writer. My idea of a good time is typing away in a cave while laughing insanely at my own jokes. I freaking hate crowds.)

OK, no massive ugly scenes in the streets. Still, a social breakdown doesn’t have to look like Hume’s nasty, poor, brutish and short nightmare. An autistic society of people in their own isolation bubbles muttering to themselves under the impression that someone is actually listening is another kind of breakdown.

China, meanwhile, is cracking the whip and setting the dial to prosperity. Singapore – now there’s the model to emulate. The occasional caning, sure. But they make the trains run on time. And the trains are so freaking cool.

Like it or not, we’re still competing with more and more people on the planet. We’re not exactly sure what the American experiment is anymore. We’re still selling it. But the world’s not buying.

My smartass, high school prediction may still come true.

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